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Despite clear differences between competitive standards of the amateur, sub-elite and world class elite cyclists, the key physiological factors that are related to success in cycling are due to a combination of physiological determinants of performance including maximal aerobic power (VO2 max), muscle fibre type, cycling efficiency and lactate threshold. Here, we will discuss the physiological differences between a three -time Tour de France champion(1), and the every day, competitive sub-elite.

D4S_5979, for use

The elite rider in question completed two submaximal cycling step tests in ambient (20°C) and hot and humid (30°C) conditions. Their physiological and physical measures are shown below, compared to research on amateur cyclists (unpublished observations from Liverpool John Moores University):

Measure Elite Outcome Amateur Outcome (average)
VO2 peak 84 mL. kg-1. min-1 60 mL. kg-1. min-1
Peak Power 525 Watts 400 Watts
Body fat 0.095 0.135
Total fat mass 6.7kg 8.8kg
Total muscle mass 61.5kg 54.5kg
Lactate Threshold Power 419 Watts (ambient) 200 Watts
Watts/kg 7.5 W. kg-1 5.3 W. kg-1

Maximal power outputs during a prolonged incremental protocol typically range between 350 – 525 watts for top cyclists(2). This elite rider hit a peak power of 525 watts, which is on the high end of this scale(1). The graph below illustrates the relative time spent at different power outputs in typical professional road race (6 hour) and an amateur road races (3.5 hours)(2). There are clear differences in the relative power profiles and, therefore, the physiological profile of these athletes would be different.

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Distribution of power output during two individual road race performances(1) (black = 6 hour pro race/ white = 3.5 hour amateur race).

Two unique characteristics of the elite cyclist study are the high Gross mechanic efficiency, which is characterized by: [(work done/energy consumed)x100], when compared with that reported for other professional cyclists. Essentially, this rider is more efficient in the way he uses energy for the work that he is doing. Gross mechanical efficiency during cycling has been reported to be between 18 and 26% in well-trained male competitive cyclists. The elite rider showed a gross efficiency of 23% and 23.6% in the ambient and hot conditions.

BrychtaJan_Kalas_GB_20161115_132620_D72_0335 The athlete showed potential for a strong performance in warm conditions with a higher gross efficiency and lower submaximal blood lactate versus those presented in ambient conditions. This may be explained by the athlete having an efficient thermoregulatory system to deal with the challenge of heat stress, as developed though a combination of genetic profile and training history. Essentially, the rider can maintain their core body temperature closer to resting conditions under stressful conditions more efficiently. The characteristics of a high VO2peak, high lactate thereshold high gross efficiency are critical to sustaining high power outputs.

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In addition, the rider possesses an excellent power to weight ratio when at his race weight of 67.5 kg. Such traits are a requirement to excel in time trials and uphill stage finishes, two areas where time is usually gained over other stage race competitors(3). The athlete is accustomed to performing in high temperatures, with races like the Tour de France taking place in midsummer. The ability to maintain performance in the heat may be an important characteristic to performance of this athlete and is reflected in the athlete’s current performances on the UCI world tour series.

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    1. Bell, P., Furber, M., van Someren, K., Antón-Solanas, A., & Swart, J. (2016). The Physiological Profile of a Multiple Tour de France Winning Cyclist. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 49(1), 115-123
    2. Atkinson, G., Davison, R., Jeukendrup, A., & Passfield, L. (2003). Science and cycling: current knowledge and future directions for research. Journal of Sports Sciences21(9), 767-787.
    3. Lamberts, R. P. (2014). Predicting cycling performance in trained to elite male and female cyclists. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance9(4), 610-614.
    Written By

    Ted Munson (Performance Nutritionist)

    Ted is a Performance Nutritionist here at Science in Sport.